The costs versus the savings of working from home

The coronavirus pandemic has forced remote work experience for the past two years. Up to 40% of workers have tested working from home throughout 2020 and 2021, according to the Productivity Commission.

This was a major jump from the number of people connecting from home offices before the pandemic. In 2019, the Melbourne Institute’s Household, Income and Labor Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey suggested that only 8% worked from home for part of their working week. Given the regularity of working from home, the Productivity Commission estimated that this represented about 2% of total hours worked from home.

Fast forward to January 2022. More than half of workers surveyed in the Melbourne Institute’s latest study, Taking the Pulse of the Nation (TTPN) said they do work from home. The majority of these people (89%) would like to continue working from home to some degree, with a third wanting to work remotely full-time.

In April 2021, 44% of employers of these workers supported the proportion of the workweek they spent at home. By January this year, that alignment had fallen to 32%, suggesting renegotiations are underway.

At a roundtable for the Committee for Economic Development Australia (CEDA), Productivity Commission Chairman Michael Brennan said this was the second wave of experimentation.

“This time, instead of everyone doing the same thing, companies and workers will try almost endless different, individualized approaches and learn from the experience. Fully remote, fully centralized and all possible versions of the model hybrid.”

As workplaces begin to find the best balance for different people and teams, we consider the pros and cons — financial, professional, and otherwise — that come with working from home.

Can we work productively from home?

Naturally, a person’s ability to work from home depends on the nature of their role, how they need to function as part of a team, and their personal disposition. This variability makes it difficult to determine any kind of average gains or decreases in productivity.

However, in general terms, the Productivity Commission considers any impact of working from home on productivity to be either positive or neutral. The main reasoning behind this is that continued work from home is only likely to be accepted by employers if there is evidence that productivity has so far been sustained. Additionally, workers who seek out remote options will more often be the ones most familiar with the process.

Revenue-based e-commerce investor Clearco set up operations in Australia last year around a hybrid working model. Clearco Australia chief executive Dan Peters said the choice of their approach – where the team meets once a week in a coworking space – was specifically based on employee desires. Going this route with the right people has proven to be effective.

“If you’re going to work in this hybrid way, you need to hire people who will be successful in this type of environment. If you’re hiring people who really want and need to be in an office five days a week and it’s not isn’t your plan, so don’t expect them to succeed,” Peters says.

Professional development in a hybrid working model

Most conversations about working remotely ask how this experience can impact career progression.

Judith Beck, financial career counselor and author of No Sex At Work, says a lot can be lost by missing the jokes at the office.

“Learning from bosses and colleagues by listening to what they say in the office is very beneficial, especially if you’re just starting out,” says Beck.

“[When working from home] you miss the casual office conversations that help improve relationships. It’s not easy to network from home and many accidental and important connections are made at work.”

To help mitigate these issues, she advises managers to bring their teams together regularly when working in hybrid models.

“It used to be that information flowed more freely around the office and everyone generally knew what was going on. Now we’re more isolated and too many assumptions are made,” she says.

“If people don’t feel connected or part of the team, it will impact turnover. People rarely leave a job for money, unless there is a huge increase. They’re more likely to leave because of the culture and lack of communication.”

For Peters and the Clearco team, it’s all about using the right tools.

“Collaboration and innovation depend on very high quality communication. And that means using the right format at the right time for the right audience with the right message,” says Peters.

“What you rely on are the tools you use and what they can offer – whether it’s Google Workspace, Slack or Microsoft Teams – and everyone’s comfort level and ability to take advantage of those tools. “

While the effectiveness of these platforms is a work in progress, Peters says they go some way to replicating the organic moments in offices that allow for continuous development. The rest, he says, comes down to the standard good management principles of regular communication, responding to teams’ needs and providing timely feedback.

“I don’t think it’s any different depending on the work environment, whether it’s remote or in-person.”

Balancing the work from home bill

Beck says the immediately obvious benefit of hybrid working is the possibility of a better work-life balance, which should ripple positively into workers’ professional relationships.

“Not having to commute an hour to work in traffic gives people more time for what’s important to them — like family, fitness, or other interests,” she says.

The Australian Psychology Society agrees that this flexibility can have positive effects on well-being, including increased job satisfaction, a greater sense of autonomy and reduced fatigue. However, he points out that a lack of face-to-face socialization and job management could increase stress, burnout and a lack of team cohesion or creativity.

The Productivity Commission also points to reduced commuting as a key financial benefit. He estimated that the average full-time worker in 2019 who commuted to work in major Australian cities spent around 67 minutes commuting each day, which amounted to $49 in lost income (not including vehicle costs). The average value of time and cost of transportation increased to $57 per day for those using public transportation.

As anyone who has decorated their home office lately knows, these setups can be expensive. Some employers may cover this bill, but if not, at least some of the costs for things like desks, chairs, and computer monitors can be claimed on your tax return. Remember that items over $300 will be deducted based on depreciation over multiple years.

You can also claim part of your work-related household electricity consumption on taxes. However, rising utility bills could further reduce this portion of the work-from-home budget. While the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has revamped electricity prices down 8% over the past two years, coal price jumps due to flooding in Australia and the Russian invasion of Ukraine threatens another price spike for consumers in the months ahead.

This is in line with growing cost of living pressures, so it’s worth reassessing your budget and determining what might work best for you as Australia experiments with new ways of working.

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